A shake-up in the treatment of women with advanced breast cancer could save 500 lives a year, British research suggests.

Most of the 2,000 UK patients diagnosed each year with stage four of the disease are given chemotherapy and anti-hormonal drugs to try to keep the cancer under control and stop it spreading reports the Daily Mail.

The original tumour in the breast is not usually removed since the cancer has already spread. Now, a review of more than 185,000 patients worldwide has found removing the tumour in the breast and/or treating it with radiotherapy as well as drugs cuts the chance of death by at least 33 per cent compared with those just given drugs.

Professor Kefah Mokbel, of the private Princess Grace Hospital, London, who led the study, said the new approach could save 500 lives a year.

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Patients who respond well to chemotherapy and have cancer that has spread only to the bones are likely to benefit most, he added. Currently half of women diagnosed with stage four will live at least three years, and 27 per cent will be alive five years after diagnosis.

Doctors believe removing the primary breast tumour may improve survival by hindering the growth of breakaway cells and by eliminating a reservoir for stem cells resistant to chemotherapy. It may also boost the body's immune system.

The study, to be published in the American Journal of Surgery, will be presented to the European Society for Medical Oncology Breast Cancer annual congress in Berlin in May.